Could Mike Lieberthal Win A Batting Title?

When the season first started and Mike Lieberthal was hitting well, it was a good sign. When Phillies fans realized that this supposed high powered offense was sputtering, but Lieberthal was pushing his average up and up, it was great. Now, with some signs that Jim Thome may be coming alive and with Pat Burrell getting two hits on Sunday, the fact that Mike Lieberthal's average is still above .350 is generating talk of a batting title.

Trivia Question: Who was the last Phillie to win a batting title? (Answer is at the end of the column).

Eventually, the question had to be put to Mike Lieberthal. "Do you think you have a shot at winning the batting title, Mike?" As Lieberthal quickly considered the question, his answer seemed to douse the hopes of the assembled media. "I don't have enough speed to win a batting title," replied the Phillies catcher. The media decided not to push the issue, opting to instead go to Larry Bowa. "Edgar Martinez isn't real fast and he's won a couple of batting titles," reasoned the Phillies manager.

It's true. Slow guys - in other words, catchers - aren't supposed to win batting titles. That's reserved for guys with at least a little speed that can beat out some infield hits and maybe even drop a bunt or two here and there to get on base. Lieberthal is neither known for legging out hits - the surgeries on his knees have made him even a step slower - nor for dropping a bunt. There have been some exceptions over the years and Martinez is probably as good of an example as you can find. Martinez hit .343 in 1992 and .356 in 1995 to win American League batting titles. In 1992, Martinez did steal 14 bases and probably has a little more speed than Lieberthal, but probably not enough more to make anyone to put him in a different speed class than Lieberthal.

Jim Edmonds and Gary Sheffield are both in the top five in hitting and neither of them are known as having great speed, although both would tend to leave Lieberthal eating a bit of dust in a sprint.

For Lieberthal to stay near the top of the heap, he may need a little more protection from the guys hitting behind him. Whether or not Larry Bowa would decide to hit Lieby higher in the lineup could conceivably make a difference. If Lieberthal continues to have a struggling David Bell behind him on most nights, winning the batting crown would be that much tougher. Moving Lieberthal to fourth in the order, with Jim Thome behind him, would give Bowa separation in righties and lefties and would give a lot more protection to Lieberthal. The decision needs to be made though on what's better for the club and not what's better for getting a guy a batting title.

Another factor that could hinder Lieberthal is the fact that he's a catcher. None of the other hitters near the top of the batting leader charts will take the pounding that Lieberthal will this season. Bowa does a good job of resting Lieberthal, which he'll definitely need. Because of the abuse that catchers take and because of Lieberthal's past history, injuries could also play a factor in Lieby's pursuit of a batting crown.

The truth is that Lieberthal could finish the season as the league's best hitter. Easy? No, but possibl? Yes. The fact that he's gotten off to such a hot start, putting him right near the top, is a huge plus. Lieby can't be in a position of having to make up ground. He needs to be in striking position of the top all season long. We're reaching the point of the season where averages don't fall or rise quite as quickly.

Of the top five in the NL in hitting right now, only Sheffield is a defending batting champion. Sheff hit .330 in 1992 as a member of the Padres to win the NL title. Edgar Renteria, who leads the league in hitting, hit .364 last season, finishing behind Barry Bonds' .370 average.

If Lieberthal wins the batting title and if the Phillies are in the playoffs, Lieberthal could also be in line for some votes as the league MVP. There is a lot of time for all of this to play out, but for a guy who the Phillies were worried about this spring because of a recurring pelvic injury, Mike Lieberthal is having a career year and it may be far from over.

Trivia Answer: Richie Ashburn was the last Phillies to win the NL batting crown when he hit .350 in 1958.

National League Batting Leaders
Through May 12, 2003

Edgar Renteria - STL.360
Mike Lieberthal - PHIL.357
Jim Edmonds - STL.345
Gary Sheffield - ATL.339
Jay Payton - COL.338

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